Myanmar: China Will Make It Work


July 12, 2018: The third meeting of the “21st Century Panglong Conference” is underway and the old problems remain and new solutions are still in short supply for achieving permanent peace in the tribal border areas. This session began on the 11th and ends on the 16th . The last session was in May 2017. This time all the armed tribal factions showed up and although these factions still have some differences with each other the one thing that unites them is their distrust of the army and believe that there cannot be peace as long as the army is independent of government control. That won’t change until the provisions of the 2011 constitution (which the military demanded before they would allow the return of democracy) are changed. That change is underway but will take time. Meanwhile, the army does whatever it wants in the tribal areas and see that as a perpetual state of war, not something they can make peace with.

Because of the situation with the army efforts to create a peace deal in the north (that everyone can agree to) is still a work in progress. Most of the visible progress is superficial. For example, in late 2016 the government and various tribal groups agreed to continue with the “Panglong Conferences” in an effort to negotiate a long-term peace deal. The last meeting was in May 2017 and was well attended by representatives from nearly all tribal groups. But even though over 750 delegates showed up nothing was really resolved. This time everyone was invited, not just those who signed the NCA (nationwide ceasefire agreement) in 2016. The main dissidents are a seven member alliance led by the UWSA (United Wa State Army) plus the KIA, TNLA, AA, NDAA, SSA-N and MNDAA which did not agree to come until the last minute. The USWA was pressured by China (the Wa are ethnic Chinese living on both sides of the border) to attend and bring the rest of the alliance with them. China against used its persuasive powers to get everyone to the current conference.

At the 2017 conference Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement that ousted the army in 2011 met separately with the leaders of each the seven alliance members. Several weeks after the conference the alliance said that in the future they would only meet with government leaders, especially military ones, as a group and not one-on-one. The UWSA led alliance is the most powerful group not only because they have good connections in China and Thailand but because they are active in the drug trade and have plenty of cash. That means they are well armed and form a military opponent the Burmese Army has never been able to subdue. With the help of China, the Burmese Army could defeat the rebels but the Chinese want much in return, especially in terms of cooperation in keeping the tribes from interfering with Chinese economic projects in the north. At the moment those Chinese projects are one of the major problems the tribes have with the government.

The tribes continue to find it difficult to unite, even for something that is mutually beneficial to all the tribes. Most tribal organizations now support the idea of a peace deal but have been unable to achieve much progress on key issues. The causes of all this tribal strife go back a long way. Fighting between government forces and tribal rebels has, since 1948, left over 200,000 dead and crippled economic growth in the border areas being fought over.

Officially known as the “Union Peace Conference 21st Century Panglong” conferences this is a long sought effort to update the original 1947 Panglong Conference held between the tribes and British colonial authorities just before Burma became independent. The 1947 conference got agreement for the tribal territories to be incorporated into Burma rather than remain a collection of tribal territories independent of any central government. World War II had just ended and the tribal territories of northern Burma and northeast India had been heavily involved because these areas had been a battleground for Japanese, British, Indian and tribal forces. The British convinced the tribes that being part of a larger neighbor (in this case former British colonies India and Burma) would be preferable to the pre-colonial chaos. The goal in the 21st century is to create a mutually acceptable federal form of government in the tribal territories. The idea is to keep the Panglong Conferences going until there is a general agreement. India has been more successful with its tribes but still has trouble with some separatist tribal rebels.

In Burma, there are also many disputes between various tribes. Many of the tribal coalitions are held together mainly by the need to unite for mutual defense from the army attacks and sometimes other tribes as well. Peace with the national government leads to more factionalism among the tribal coalitions. This is already happening in those areas that have been a peace for a year or so. As democracy returned to Burma after 2011 the army was forced to reduce their operations against the tribes. That process is continuing and with comes more opportunities for tribes to revive ancient tribal feuds.

In addition to the new fighting between tribes, there is the fact that some major tribal militias are not quite ready to negotiate. Most of these groups were allowed to observe the 2016 and 2017 Panglong conferences and for the 2018 conference, China increased its use of favors (or threats, as needed) to persuade all the tribes to show up. China was even more active in the 2018 conference, making deals with various factions and groups (including the army and the Burmese government).

The main Chinese goal is to get its economic projects, mainly those connected with the Obor (One Belt, One Road) project. Obor is all about China building roads, railroads, pipelines and ports to make it easier for Chinese imports and exports to move around. Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand Sri Lanka and Burma are all Obor participants that are seeing billions of dollars in construction Chinese projects taking place and the terms of these deal tend to favor China, not the country where the construction takes place. Not surprisingly many people in these Obor countries see the Chinese investments as another form of colonialism. China prefers not to call it colonialism but rather seeking to expand its commercial activities. The Burmese tribes have long depended on Chinese cash and diplomatic influence to survive.

Rohingya Apparently Abandoned

The June 6 agreement between the government and UN proved, as expected, unable to help Burmese Rohingya Moslem refugees in Bangladesh. It was immediately pointed out that the agreement is about what the UN and government will do, not what they must do according to any set schedule. Moreover, China continues to use its veto to block any meaningful UN action against Burma over the Rohingya issue.

Over 10,000 more Burmese Rohingya Moslems have fled to Bangladesh in 2018. There are not many left and it is still not safe to be Rohingya in Burma. The million or so Burmese refugees in Bangladesh are stuck there for what appears to be an extended period. As happens in large refugee camps like this, criminal gangs form and use force, often murder, to gain control of illegal activities like extortion, distribution of illegal drugs and smuggling (including people). Bangladesh has assigned more police to the camps but it is not enough.

The Burmese government insists that only validated Burmese residents will be allowed back and the verification process is stalled with only a few thousand Rohingya “verified” as Burmese. The UN agreement is unlikely to change that because the Burmese, with some justification, are insisting on documentation from refugees and many have not got it. Burma was approving less than ten percent of the names Bangladesh presents as authentic Burmese Rohingya and that may be increased to appease the UN but even then that does not guarantee that the refugee will return. The repatriation back to Burma of was supposed to begin in January 2018 but continued army violence against Rohingya still in Burma made that impossible. Added to that were the administrative problems and so much more. Those Rohingya going back must do so voluntarily and the refugees know what is going on in their former neighborhoods. That’s because Rohingya willing to go back want to return to their homes and property. If their home was destroyed (as many were during the military violence) the returnees want an opportunity to rebuild and for the government to supply money and supplies to make that possible. That would be difficult because in many of the areas Rohingya fled from local officials have treated the former Rohingya property as “abandoned” and available or resale and reuse. The UN can demand that the government do something about that and the government can refer the disputes to Burmese courts where each claim must be litigated.

The government is under no binding obligation to expedite this repatriation process. Rohingya refugees are aware of this and will not return until the government clears up the property ownership issues. That happening is considered an impossible dream by all concerned. As a result, many Rohingya refugees are seeking new homelands. Bangladesh is not considered a good candidate because the country is already crowded and poor and long the source of illegal migrants to other nations. At the moment Moslem refugees are a hard sell, even in Moslem countries. No one is willing to take a lot of Rohingya and Bangladesh does not like being stuck with these large refugee camps near the Burmese border. Because the Rohingya are Moslem most Moslem nations have been quick to condemn Burma and urge international efforts to force Burma to take back the Rohingya. Bangladesh is moving ahead with its effort to provide IDs for nearly a million Rohingya refugees. This will include collecting biometric data (digital photos and fingerprints) on all of them. This is supposed to be done by the end of 2018. Burma has no similar data on the Rohingya forced out of Burma and uses that as an excuse not to allow any back in unless they have the proper documents.

July 11, 2018: In the north (Shan state) the army spent the last few days fighting with SSA-S (Shan State Army-South) tribal rebels over how to interpret the terms of the NCA (National Ceasefire Agreement) the SSA-S signed in 2015. The army and tribes often do not agree on details of ceasefire or peace deals and fighting resumes.

July 3, 2018: Most of the border states, where all the fighting between tribal militias and army take place, are dangerous even when there are no armed men around. That’s because both sides continue to use landmines. Aid groups in Shan State asked around and found out that at least three people had been killed in June by landmines. In 2017 alone over a hundred Rohingya died while fleeing the country because of unmarked minefields near the border. The continued violence in the north has made it impossible for mine-clearing teams to operate in many areas. Worse, you never know if there are any old, but still functional, mines anywhere up there as records were not kept on where all the mines were placed. The rebels and the military both use the mines to defend their bases. The military will allow many mines to be cleared in areas they control. But in most of the north, there are still thousands of old mines out there that cause several hundred casualties a year, mostly to unwary civilians.

Since the 1960s over 100,000 landmines were planted by the military. These were used to protect infrastructure (roads, electricity lines, bridges) and government controlled towns. The rebels appear to have used nearly as many. The mines are a constant hazard in the thinly populated tribal areas and make a lot of grazing and farm land too dangerous to use. The military has offered to clear some mines if the tribes will reduce their operations or move their gunmen away from key roads or new economic enterprises up there that the military has an interest in. In many areas, the tribes are reluctant to do this because that means abandoning tribal people who are being forcibly displaced from land they have occupied for centuries by massive (usually Chinese controlled) construction projects.

July 2, 2018: China assured Bangladesh that Burma would take back the million or so Rohingya Moslems who were driven out of Burma in the last two years. While this was reassuring to Bangladesh it was mystifying to Burma where the Chinese have not made any threats lately to persuade Burma to take back their Rohingya. Then again, China prefers to use surprise as well as threats in its diplomacy.

June 27, 2018: In the northwest on the Indian border, another battle between Indian commandoes and Indian tribal rebels took place three kilometers inside Burma. The Indian rebels belonged to NSCN-K (National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang) and had ambushed an Indian patrol in India on June 18th, wounding three soldiers before fleeing back into Burma. India has an informal agreement with Burma that when Indian rebels based in Burma inflict casualties on Indian forces and the Burmese cannot get to the rebel camp, Indian commandos will take care of it.

June 20, 2018: The army said it would not return or pay compensation for land seized (for military use) in Shan and Rakhine states. This has long been unofficial army policy and a source of anger in the tribal areas because a lot of the land seized for “military purposes” was late quietly and quite profitably, sold to others for commercial use. The original tribal owners had no recourse, except to join a tribal militia. The military is using the same seizure procedure for much of the land left behind by the Rohingya Moslems driven from Rakhine state.


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